With this book, James Keenan takes his place alongside several of his Jesuit brothers who have cast light on the development of Catholic moral theology in the past century: Josef Fuchs (Keenan’s teacher in Rome), Richard McCormick (the author for many years of the “Notes on Moral Theology” in Theological Studies), and John Mahoney (author of the magnificent The Making of Moral Theology).

Keenan’s book is by no means perfect: it suffers from flaws all too gleefully catalogued by R. R. Reno in an intemperate review in First Things (December 2010). To begin with, the first several chapters sometimes read like barely reworked lectures notes: I felt like I was back in graduate school, with the difference that it was impossible to liven things up by peppering the lecturer with questions and requesting elaborations. The last chapter, on work from around the world during the first decade of this new century, proves less discussion than list. One learns who is out there writing what (and Keenan seems to have read everyone), but there is little detailed theological engagement. Perhaps the lesson here is not to try writing a history of the present.

Keenan, who holds the Founders Professorship in Theology at Boston College, is respected and well liked by his colleagues in the academic guild. He has been the organizer of two influential international conferences that brought together Catholic moral theologians from the first and third worlds. His writing questioning certain magisterial teachings on sexual morality has drawn criticism, and sometimes derision, in conservative Catholic circles. Reno’s review,  “A Caricature of History,” was typical in that regard. His main claim is that “Keenan gives his amorphous material the illusion of historical form and interpretation by way of the shallow clichés that have guided the standard liberal Catholic storyline for decades.” According to Reno, “The end result is a book that serves as an almost perfect illustration of the sad intellectual dead end to which the post–Vatican II liberal project has come”—a claim Reno likes so much that he more or less makes it again: “As A History of Catholic Moral Theology indicates, in this new century, the tradition of moral theology [Keenan] represents has little to offer other than petulant reiterations of ideas that have calcified into brittle, shallow, and irritated gestures passed off as serious thought.” Reno is gesturing here toward Lionel Trilling’s notorious description of conservatism as a philosophy comprising “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This seems, well, petulant and irritating on Reno’s part. Still, the charge needs answering.

Here is what Keenan has to offer: a relatively brief survey of a vast array of thinkers and themes, with particular attention to what he calls the “enormously complex move” in the twentieth century “from defining moral theology as the fixed science of human action to becoming a guide for the personal and communal development of the conscientious disciples of Christ.” Reno is right, I think, that the historical account could be more even-handed at places, and he is also right that the history sometimes becomes a bit blow-by-blow without sufficient analysis. Yet there is little reason to reject the main storyline. Keenan’s conservative critics may not like the fact that the focus of moral theology has shifted from diagnosing “moral pathologies” to formation of conscience, but Keenan amply shows that it has. What’s more, Keenan gives reason to think that this shift has been good: moral theology is now much more, well, theological than it was when the moral manuals, intended for confessors and parish priests, dominated the discipline.

The main figures of Keenan’s account include Odon Lottin, who “retrieved the historical context of the development of moral theology and, in doing so, discovered the need for moral theology to be united with dogmatic, biblical, and ascetical theology”; Fritz Tillmann and Gérard Gilleman, who began to do precisely the work of unification that Lottin called for; and Bernard Häring, whose three-volume The Law of Christ synthesized and advanced decades of developments in moral theology, increasingly “rooted in dogma, Scripture, and spirituality.”

No doubt what irks self-described “orthodox” critics is how Keenan contrasts these positive developments with “ever-encroaching Vatican dictates” on such controversies as the use of condoms by those infected by AIDS and the withdrawal of artificial hydration and nutrition from those in a persistent vegetative state. Keenan does not look favorably on what he calls “the neomanualism of the magisterium,” which has increasingly claimed exclusive moral authority for itself and has lately looked more to moral philosophers than to moral theologians for support. From this perspective, moral theologians figure less as “a guild of arbiters of the moral tradition” than as mere “interpreters of contemporary magisterial utterances.” (I once heard a young moral theologian commend her topic on the grounds that the magisterium had not yet spoken definitively on it, and so theologians were free to argue as they saw fit.) The underlying question here is that of the ground of authority or, as Keenan puts it, to whom “moral theologians owe...primary allegiance in the pursuit of moral truth in the church.” As he rightly remarks, our answer to this question turns on our understanding of “who or what the church is.”

It is difficult to see Keenan’s book as evidence of the death of “the post-Vatican II liberal project.” The book is not always the most bracing read, but it has much to teach the student of moral theology. Perhaps, as his critics triumphantly assert, the enthusiasm and hope generated by the council have been played out. Yes, there is a cohort of young, sincere “evangelical Catholics” led by so-called John Paul II priests. But they are not many, and they often know little of the depth and complexities of the tradition.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, was published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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